Mental Health and Post Secondary Education
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
1. Don't rush:
Almost everything else that I say in this post will in some way come back to this point.
2. Talk to professors.
These relationships can end up lasting a lifetime and are invaluable for various reasons.
3. Know when to stop.
You can only go at full tilt for so long. There's no shame in taking time off, if I hadn't taken my year off, I would've flunked out. It's scary but I promise you won't fall off the face of the earth just because you're not in school.
4. Baby steps and small victories.
Set small goals you know you can achieve. Can be as simple as making your coffee instead of buying it. After a really bad few weeks of depression, I had a really hard time getting myself back to my swim practices. The first time I tried to go back (after being absent for 3 weeks), I could barely get myself into the building. I decided that I would at least go to my locker and drop off my stuff. If I still didn't want to go to practice then I wouldn't, but I needed to do something.
Once I got to my locker, I felt guilty for not going, and really started to miss swimming. I looked at the time, it was only 10 minutes into the hour and a half practice, so I went! and I haven't hesitated to go to any practices since. Baby steps. I just had to get myself into the gym, if I hadn't accepted that maybe that's all I would be able to do that day then I would've stayed in my spiral.
5. Forgive yourself.
The only way you'll be able to overcome and move on from your setbacks is by accepting them and forgiving yourself for whatever you think you did wrong. If you continue to dwell on your mistakes and stay angry at yourself, you'll never be able to move forward and achieve your goals. I find when I'm going through a rough patch, it's easy to beat myself up for running 10 minutes late, or dropping my keys on the way out the door. When something like that happens, sit down or stand still, close your eyes and count to 10 breathing slowly. You need to bring yourself out of that stressed out mindset or things will continue to go wrong and you'll find a way blame yourself. When you're in school, you're being pushed into an archaic system with countless flaws and a one size fits all approach. If things aren't going well of course try your best to fix them but just remember that these institutions (especially large universities) aren't really built with your (the students') well being as first priority. Some schools have really great supports, others don't. Don't try to point blame anywhere, just do your best to accept the past, make a plan to address the present problems, and then deal with the future.
6. Find role models (Some of mine: Michael Phelps, Nash, Ellen, all ladies in Hidden Figures and every woman scientist ever).
Lately, Michael Phelps has been my primary role model because of the struggle I went through trying to get myself back into the pool and the gym. I have yet to read his full biography but just knowing that he made a massive comeback after going a bit off the rails as a result of his ADD and depression really helped me forgive myself for missing practices and helped me accept that things like this can happen to anyone.
7. Find a mentor.
I met my mentor in my fourth year at the University of Toronto. I took one of her evolutionary biology classes and within about 10 seconds of the first lecture I knew I needed to just go and talk to her (at the time I was planning on graduate school and immediately decided to get her as a reference). I don't know how it happened but she absolutely changed my life. Over time, I kept going and asking questions about the material and slowly we would both just go off on tangents about cats and Charles Darwin. Over more time, I found out that she had dealt with severe depression throughout her career and it took her 6 years to finish her undergraduate degree because she kept taking time off. At this point, she's like my young(ish), cool grandma. I don't know where I would be if I hadn't met her. So again, talk to your professors.
8. Take care of yourself first both physically and mentally.
I'll elaborate more on this in later posts. The main points are to try to keep the majority of your diet balanced. There is no shame in eating a pint of ice cream and/or a row of oreos in one siting (yes I am in fact speaking from experience... I should warn you that your digestive system will not thank you for this). However, try to balance it somehow; I use soup, smoothies, and healthy bowls to balance myself when I've had a bad day or my PMS kicks in (ladies, we've all been there).
9. Make your home a sanctuary.
You need wherever you're living to feel safe, and comfortable. I've spent the last 2.5 months perfecting my apartment and I can't emphasize enough the importance of a clean, safe, cozy living space is for your mental health. I'll also say more about this later but to get started, let me just say that thrift stores and IKEA will be your best friends through this process.
10. Do NOT compare yourself to anyone else.
Personally, I think the route of almost all of my struggles is here. Is it cliche? yes, but it's true. So I'll just note one thing. When you look back over history, think about all of the most notable, successful, famous, influential people. A few examples could be: Mozart, Stephen Hawking, Madonna, Van Gogh, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Prince, John Forbes Nash Jr. and so many more. They absolutely did not fit into society's standards of "normal" and were very far off the beaten path at so many times in their lives. Just focus on yourself. Once I started to approach school the way I approached sports (beat your own times, forget about everyone else) it helped me put my academic struggles into perspective. If I can barely get myself out of bed, I probably shouldn't expect to maintain the GPA of someone who has a completely different life and backstory. To a conversation I had with my wonderful mentor/cool grandma:
Me: "what would it be like to be neurotypical?"
Deb: "I think it would be boring"